The Sisterhood Finale: Discernment Glimpsed

TheSisterhoodPhotoSeriesThe last two episodes of Lifetime’s reality TV show, The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns, broadcast last night. Because of the nature of a reality TV show which needs an ending, the young women were asked to share their decisions at the end of the six weeks. This superficially imposed time frame was not necessarily helpful to the discernment process of these young women, but it gave the show some closure. I won’t give any spoilers here, but I’d like to offer some last reflections on topics that came up in the show.

I’ll begin by noting that once again, the insights offered into religious life were positive and marvelous. Mother Christina and the Sisters of St. Joseph the Worker were real, compassionate, and inviting.

But the process of discerning religious life is not so realistically portrayed.

Discernment Glimpsed, Not Portrayed

Having finished the show and guessing at some of what happened “behind the scenes” and interiorly in the young women, it seems to me that this show offers only glimpses of what it is like to discern religious life, and some of those glimpses are misleading.

Above all, the superficial timeline of six weeks—that is, trying to discern a vocation according to the constraints of a reality TV show rather than according to God’s timing—led to a lot of unnecessary stress and even distress for the young women discerning. While discernment can involve moments of turmoil, it’s really  important to be at peace during one’s discernment.

The decisions that were made by the young women were not final decisions, although that’s not really made clear on the show—especially for the young women who chose to continue their discernments with a particular community. First, they need to continue discerning, as one two-week visit is not enough time to discern. In addition, the sisters—especially the vocation directors and superiors—will now actively engage in discernment with the young women. Discernment doesn’t just involve the individual’s choice, but also the choice of God, which is revealed in the affirmation or confirmation of the Church—in this case, of the congregation. A young person doesn’t discern their vocation on their own, but within the Church.

Chastity for the Sake of the Kingdom

Not surprisingly for our sexuality-obsessed culture, the discerners talked about chastity and the question of “who is a virgin” in three separate conversations during episodes four and five. (Note that neither poverty nor obedience really came up as points for discussion.) I’d like to respond to a couple of points that came up in the conversations:

1) Our sexuality is integral to who we are as human beings, but actually having sex is not the only way  of expressing our sexuality. The love between a man and a woman is a sacred, beautiful thing, and most people are called to holiness as married people. For them, the act of making love is the fullest expression of their sexuality. Making love is meant for that one, intimate, permanent relationship.

2) God intends that the sacred act of making love be reserved for those who are married. The rest of us are called to live a celibate chastity. Having sex is not a “test” for a relationship. Nor is it necessary to have had sex in order to discern one’s vocation—to marriage, priesthood, or religious life. In discerning one’s vocation it’s helpful to have a certain level of maturity, but it’s not necessary to experience everything in order to make a good discernment.

One’s vocation to religious life does not depend on whether one is a virgin or not. However, the person discerning religious life needs to experience the capacity to live a celibate chastity—not just think about it. (For example, Claire deciding to live “sacred singleness.”) If we are beginning to discern our vocation, or even if we simply want to discern God’s will more deeply in our lives, we will want to look seriously at the call to live chastely according to our state in life.

3) Living the vow of chastity requires both faith and the continuous effort to grow as a person. As human beings, we are made for marriage! So it requires a special call, a special grace of God, to live a celibate chastity as a religious.  And sometimes that’s hard to understand for those who are not called in this way.

Having healthy relationships with people of both sexes is an important part of personal growth for someone committing (or thinking of committing) to the vow of chastity. On our part, actually living a celibate lifestyle requires faith, emotional and personal maturity, the desire to give all of one’s self to God in a radical way, and an openness to let God’s grace work in us.

Reconciliation

Just as we are all called to live chastely according to our state in life, we are also called to live in charity. Discernment has a communitarian aspect, and this was hinted at in the show by showing how five very different young women share such an intense journey—supporting each other, but also sometimes very tense with each other.

Several times during the show, one or more of the young women behaved in a way that didn’t reflect Gospel values. In response, one or more of the group of discerners tried to talk about it with the others. The motivation to talk about it always included charity—to help the person(s) whose behavior was problematic to the other discerners. The motivations also seemed to include a desire to grow in harmony and unity, or simply a desire to stay “on track” with a discerning spirit—which was another way of expressing the need for support for a faith-filled atmosphere during the days of discernment.

As we’ve all experienced, these kinds of discussions or confrontations can break down into blame, accusations, defensiveness or judgments. In episode 5, Mother Christina guides what could have become a divisive fight into an experience of reconciliation. Living in reconciliation—asking for forgiveness and extending forgiveness wholeheartedly—is not about being right, or even being fair. Nor is it simply “giving in.” Instead, reconciliation is about seeking to grow in love, letting go of judging others, and a letting go of what’s not essential for the sake of love. Learning to live in reconciliation is essential to community living (and to every vocation).

Sacred Silence

The discerners’ response to the nighttime “Grand Silence” in the convent? Writing notes to the camera!

I had to laugh at this. Silence can seem to be a scary thing, especially when we’re not used to it. As Daughters of Saint Paul, we too have many times of silence built into our lives, especially the night and early mornings, so that we can be more attuned to the voice of God. Our monthly one-day retreats and our eight-day annual retreats are special times of silence, which open us up to deeper intimacy with God.

If we are struggling to discover God’s will for us, then we might also be struggling to see or experience God’s presence in our lives. Building in some times of silence into our day—even just 15 minutes in the morning with no music, no news, no checking the internet—can make a huge difference in our ability to listen.

When we are surrounded by noise, we start to “tune out” because we can’t possibly hear everything going on around us. When we take time for quiet, we can start to hear the noise inside of us, and let it gradually quiet down. Once we are immersed in silence—both external and internal—we can “tune in” to what’s going on deep within us, and we can hear the Lord’s whispered invitations.

Silence and listening are keys to discerning well.

Family & Discernment

I was pleased to see that, in this show, each discerner shared her discernment with her loved ones, who were mostly supportive. When someone discerns a big life choice—a vocation, a job change, moving away, etc., this can be hard for family members to adjust to. Sometimes a family member will express misgivings. A family member who doesn’t share our faith may struggle to understand a young person’s vocation to priestly or religious life. The person discerning needs to follow God’s call no matter the cost, but taking the time to journey with one’s family, to seek their support, and to explain their reasons to those who don’t understand, are all important. If it’s available, we all need the support of our families to live our vocations well.

One of the sisters talked about how, when a young woman enters a convent, her family gains all the sisters of the convent as part of their extended family! This is true, because each sister’s family is now related to the community in a special way. While every congregation has its own customs of how they encourage their sisters to stay connected with their families (frequency of visits, phone calls, letters, etc.), it’s important that each community recognizes the importance of family in supporting one’s vocation, encouraging some kind of connection.

* * *

All in all, the show has been wonderful in its portrayal of religious life, the opportunities it’s offered for discussions about discernment, and the way that it’s allowed me to connect on Twitter and here on this blog with those who are interested/curious/discerning about religious life! I welcome further comments here or via email.

And I entrust the courageous and generous women on the show–Eseni, Francesca, Stacey, Christie, and Claire–and all the viewers, to the intercession of Mary, our Mother and Queen whose “yes” at the Annunciation is the model for our vocational “yes” and our daily “yes” to the Lord’s invitations:

Prayer To Our Lady of the Annunciation
by Blessed James Alberione

May all generations proclaim you blessed, Mary.
You believed the Archangel Gabriel,
and in you were fulfilled all the great things that he had announced to you.
My soul and my entire being praise you, Mary.
You believed totally in the Incarnation of the Son of Godin your virginal womb,
and you became the Mother of God.
Then the happiest day in the history of the world dawned.
Humanity received the Divine Master,
the sole eternal Priest,
the Victim who would make reparation,
the universal King.

Faith is a gift of God and the root of every good.
Mary, obtain for us, too, a lively, firm and active faith—
faith which saves and produces saints,
faith in the Church, in the Gospel, in eternal life.
May we meditate on the words of your blessed Son,
as you preserved them in your heart and devoutly meditated on them.
May the Gospel be preached to everyone.
May it be docilely accepted.
May all men and women become, in Jesus Christ, children of God. Amen.

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Insights & Contradictions in The Sisterhood, Episodes 3 & 4

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Adoration in our Pauline Chapel

Lifetime’s reality TV show The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns continued last night with episodes 3 and 4 back-to-back. These new episodes highlighted all the conventions of a reality TV show that I don’t enjoy: competition, heightened (over-the-top!) drama, staged scenes, coaching from the show’s producers, oversimplification of relationships and personal journeys, and an overt editing that revealed an obvious manipulation of various events. For me, watching this show has become a study of reality television shows and how “not real” they are!

Yet, if we take these conventions into account, it’s still possible to gain insight, both into religious life and into the process of discernment, as some viewers live-tweeted with other sisters and me while watching the show. I think this is particularly true because of the good will of the sisters and discerners on the show, who tried to be real in their interviews and comments.

Insights that I think could be particularly helpful for those of us who want to live more deeply in a spirit of discernment are:

Insight 1. Do not be afraid, but trust in God! We can often see God’s hand in our lives much more clearly when we look back on an experience, rather than when we are living in it. The most positive moments in the show so far have been when the young women leave one convent for another. In looking back on their experiences there, they talk about being loved, about experiencing God, and about growing as persons.

Yet we have just witnessed that these visits were not easy to go through. So these episodes help us to see that even in the difficult, confusing, or challenging moments of our lives, we need to cling to hope: God will use every event to draw us closer to himself, if we let him. This insight bears repeating for all of us: Do not be afraid! Trust in God, no matter where you are because he is with you.

Insight 2. The power of Eucharistic adoration in discerning. As a Pauline sister, I have a special love for Eucharistic adoration. My favorite description of adoration is something that St. John Paul said when he encouraged young people to go before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and simply “let him love you.”

If you already pray before Jesus in the Eucharist regularly, you know how blessed we are to be able to take advantage of his presence, his love, his availability! When you take quality time with Jesus in the Eucharist—at Mass, receiving Communion, or making some time for adoration—Jesus will transform the rest of your life as well. You cannot, will not, walk away unchanged.

If you don’t already make an occasional or regular Eucharistic Hour of adoration, I encourage you to consider it, perhaps by starting with just 20 minutes. There is something about the tangible closeness and vulnerability of Jesus in the Eucharist that can pierce through our blindness and defenses, helping us understand how loved we are, and how faithful his love is.

For those for whom the silence of adoration is really hard, there can be for a number of reasons, but I hear two reasons repeatedly:

1) We simply don’t know what to do with the silence.

2) When we are silent for a time, all the negative stuff–thoughts, feelings, or experiences–that we carry within us come to the fore, and we’re not expecting that. It can make any time of silence difficult, including time of adoration. It can be really hard if we feel that we have to be “extra-holy” to come to adoration.  But what better place to deal with the “tough stuff” of our lives than with our loving Lord? In the Eucharist, Jesus welcomes and loves us. Jesus knows us better than we know ourselves, and delights in us, no matter what we are struggling with. And when we draw close to him in the Eucharist, we are inviting him to work in us, to heal us, to help us to grow.

What can we do if we struggle with the silence? Here are a couple quick suggestions:

  • Bring whatever is troubling us to Jesus in the Most Holy Eucharist. Keep the time of adoration to a length that feels manageable. Even five minutes of adoration can transform our day. And use favorite prayers and Scripture readings to make the time of adoration a real encounter with Jesus.
  • Use a method to guide your time of adoration. Saint Alphonus Liguori’s method is beautiful and easy to use. The Pauline way of adoration is my favorite—you can find more about it below.
  • Use a book like my newly published Soul of Christ to guide your time of adoration.

(For more on Eucharistic adoration, you may wish to check out my book, Soul of Christ: Meditations on a Timeless Prayer, or  another book on Eucharistic prayer.)

Insight 3. Discernment is not about proving ourselves; it’s about love. None of us are “worthy” of being loved or being called to love. If we honestly know ourselves and ponder the heights of each vocation to love—whether it is the vocation to consecrated life, single life, or marriage—all of us find ourselves lacking.

Several times during the show, a young woman referred to “proving” herself to God, or “redeeming” herself in the eyes of others. This highlights for me again that the show can be misleading about competition and comparisons. Discernment is about discovering that we are loved by God deeply and wondrously, and then responding to God’s amazing love.

Discernment is about discovering our call to love.

4. God works with each of us individually. There are commonalities within discernment, but there is also the truth that God has a unique relationship with each one of us.

Every young woman experienced something remarkably different in the aftermath of several events, for example, praying the Rosary in the car after Darnell showed up to bring Eseni home (and thus short-circuit her discernment). From bringing back painful memories for Stacey and prompting her to feel lost, to offering light and clarity for Christie, this moment showed how unique each woman’s journey is. God’s individual guidance was also very clear during the young women’s different responses to the quiet time of  Eucharistic adoration. Some of the young women were deeply touched and one had a breakthrough, while some found the adoration time very difficult—with one young woman needing to leave for some fresh air. (Note: It might have been helpful if the young women had some guidance in how to make an hour of adoration, especially for those who hadn’t done it before.) Because discernment is so individual, a group experience like this—while it has its strengths—also needs to take into account where each young person is. Obviously this wasn’t possible in a show like this.

* * *

Although the young women and sisters offered a lot of support to the young women discerning, both Episodes 3 & 4 had moments that really challenged me to continue watching, when certain behaviors contradicted Gospel values that are sought to be lived intensely in religious life. Especially the moments where participants of the show talk about others on camera, it’s hard for me to see the charity at work there amidst the comparisons, even knowing the comments are taken out of context. As one of our sisters, @SrSeanM so eloquently put in Twitter-verse nuggets last week:

I figured out what’s bugging me about #TheSisterhood. They’re treating #discernment like religious life Boot Camp. And it’s so not!”

#Discernment NOT a matter of seeing whether or not you measure up! It’s a matter of discovering what you are called to.”

“There are no short-cuts to creating a deep loving relationship. Love takes time and persistence. #Vocation is a call to love.”

Ultimately, discernment is a call to love: to discover how loved we are, and to respond to that immense, divine love! I close this post as I have in the past: by praying for the discerners on the show and watching the show. The prayer below is adapted from the prayer given to us by our Founder, Blessed James Alberione, to encourage prayer for priestly and religious vocations: 

            Jesus, Divine Master, who said, “The harvest indeed is great, but the laborers are few,” we lovingly accept your invitation: “Pray the heavenly Father to send forth laborers into his harvest.”

            Inspire a devout crusade for vocations: “All the faithful for all vocations!” More priests! May they be the salt of the earth, the light of the world, the city placed on the mountaintop for the salvation of humanity redeemed by your blood. More religious–both men and women–to fill the earth with religious houses which welcome your chosen ones, and which will be centers of light and warmth, sources of prayer, gardens of saints, singing “glory to God and peace to men and women of good will.” More husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, who testify to your Gospel in the world, at work, in the family, and in the loving formation of their children.

            Mary, “God’s chosen one,” Mother and guardian of holy vocations, pray with us, pray for us, and for all called by God to live our vocations in greater love and holiness. Amen.

Learning from The Sisterhood: Discernment in Episode 2

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Prayer To Discern Well from new Discern It! App

As I mentioned in my previous post, and have shared in many conversations, Lifetime’s show The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns,  while suffering all the limitations of a reality TV show, can do a great deal of good by offering to viewers a fascinating portrayal of religious life, and a sense of the challenges and obstacles a young woman faces in discerning whether she is called to become a sister.

Episode 1 introduced us to each young woman and to the Carmelites of the Aged and Infirm, where the young women are doing the first two weeks of their live-in. Episode 2 brings us right into the “nuts and bolts” of the young women’s discernments.

For this episode, I’d like to look at some of the typical discernment moments that arose on the show, seeing what we can learn from them (and without making any judgments on the people  involved). Some key moments in discernment that I noted while I watched:

  • Eseni’s desire for growth and peace, and Sr. Maria Theresa’s response that it is important for her to seek healing. I really loved Sr. Maria Theresa’s comment that all of us are broken, and all of us need healing. (By the way, this is a wonderful insight for Advent: we are all in need of a Savior!)When we feel deep turmoil and restlessness, it’s a good time to reflect, but isn’t necessarily the best time to make a big change in our lives, because we might be making a change simply to find relief from our inner pain, rather than truly following God’s invitation. Saint Ignatius of Loyola has some great guidelines about this. If we are discerning about something major in our lives and we discover that we are deeply troubled about something else, we may want to slow down our discernment, or discern the cause of our turmoil and take steps towards healing and peace, rather than make a big decision about our original discernment. In general, when we are discerning something major in our life like our vocation, we want to discern from a place of peace.
  • Christie’s desire for greater intimacy with Christ, while instead she was feeling desolation. I love how honestly she puts it: “I showed up and he [Jesus] didn’t!” A wise spiritual director might encourage someone in a situation like Christie to not be afraid and to “stay the course” and not make any hasty decisions—either about going home or entering religious life. In the midst of the kind of anxiety or desolation that Christie seemed to be experiencing, we want to pay attention. The spiritual life is full of experiences of consolation and desolation, so when we are in the throes of desolation, it’s good to take it slow and reflect on what’s happening. A spiritual director who has experience in Ignatian discernment, especially “discernment of spirits,” can be really helpful, because St. Ignatius offers a lot of wisdom when he describes the different causes of spiritual consolation and desolation, and how we can discern even from within them.
  • The courage that several young women showed during times of anxiety or difficulty in participating in the sisters’ mission is inspiring and encouraging for all of us who seek to discern. Discernment takes great courage and freedom because we are letting go of our illusions of control and our ego, trusting in the Lord instead, and surrendering to his guiding love.
  • At several points Claire struggles with her relationship with the other discerners. Several comments that were made highlighted for me an important principle in matters of the spiritual life—including discernment. It’s not helpful to compare ourselves with others, especially if we’re trying to determine where we are on our journey or our next step. God works with each of us individually, and each of us has unique experiences and a unique relationship with God. While we can learn from each other, note similarities or differences in our journeys, we don’t want to fall into the trap of making comparisons or judgements.

And this is important, not just for the young women and sisters in the show, but for those of us watching as well. Even in a show with such good intentions as The Sisterhood, the temptation seems to be to compare these young women to each other, and to judge their responses to the challenges they face (and then to compare with ourselves). This is a very human tendency, but comparing these young women to each other and making judgments about their journeys is really unhealthy spiritually. (It brings to mind a homily Pope Francis gave last year about gossip.) Talking about others uncharitably is gossip. A TV show about discernment might especially tempt those of us who know more about this spiritual art to make judgments about the people involved. But in all honesty, as viewers we are not even receiving the full picture.

We all know that reality TV is not real:

  • it’s edited so that we never have the full context for any event or conversation
  • people naturally play to the camera or can even react differently if they are within range of a camera
  • reality TV fosters or emphasizes drama.

We also don’t know what only God knows: the deep desires and motivations of each person. Keeping all of that  in mind, even if we had the right to judge, we don’t have the full information needed to do so. (And we never do!)

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In that spirit, I’d like to close with a prayer for all the discerners: those on the show itself, and those who are watching and seeking to discern God’s will for their lives.

Come, Holy Spirit, and shine your light, peace, and wisdom on Eseni, Stacey, Francesca, Claire, and Christie, and all those who seek to live more fully in accord with your will.

-Give them the peace to not be caught up in their feelings, but to sort through them in serenity to have greater clarity about their desires

-Purify their hearts so that their motivation to live in union with you grows always greater

-And grant them the courage and freedom to risk, to take on new challenges and try new things, as they seek to discover how you call them to live the Gospel of life and of love. Amen.

For those interested, you can find the new, free Discern It! App here from the Daughters of Saint Paul.